Recently, a friend of mine asked me to give my two cents on how I compose a page for book illustration. I don't really consider myself an expert on art, design or composition but I figured I'd share my philosophies on the matter for those who may feel they can be a helpful start in illustraitng for picture books.
First of all, I should discuss my infuences. I learned everything by imitaiton. I think, for anyone who has started in art you begin by copying those things that interst you and you improve by repetition. For me, I grew up drawing Garfield and VINCENT from the old Disney movie "The Black Hole" (Don't ask) When it came to children's books my infatuation was with the work of William Joyce...
Now in terms of referencing notes about composition, while in art school, Joyce's work really spoke to me in a matter of grouping certain elements together and establishing a Foreground, Midground, and Background. This was something about his work that always impressed me and was one of the most important things I appropriated from his style which I wanted to depict in my own work. Santa Calls, in my opinion, is one of the best examples of his work that depicts this trait.
So how does one do that? Well, to be honest it was a skill that took years for me to get the hang of, and to this day I'm still trying to perfect it in my own craft. The first thign I can address is what they refered to in art school as, THE FIRST READ.
1.THE FIRST READ
Take the image from OH NO! at the top for example. There are many elements and colors and shapes which can easily get jumbled together if they are not grouped properly to make the brain process the information easily and efficiently.
The best way to approach composition is by simplifying the information so that it's easy for the brain to take in. The brain loves order. By organizing the visual information so that it becomes effortless for the brain to process then the more pleasing the image will be perceived to be.
The most common thing you hear in art school is 'squint at your work'. The reason why you do this is so that you can see if separate objects on a page are contrasted enough to separate in form. If I were to squint at the image I would separate the two major elements in this piece being the Foreground and Background. It would look something like this....
Now, the first read is the first thign your eye wants to be drawn to on a page. Folks like NC Wyeth were masters at this craft....
Take this Robin Hood piece for example. The firs thing you notice is Robin's face for several reasons. It's central to the piece, the face is well lit in comparison to a relatively mid to dark toned piece which is in tree shade and lastly, his head is framed nicely by a much lighter and more saturated background sky. There's nowhere else your eye wants to go.
Ok, back to my piece. The first read I wanted to depict is the robot. This is established by separating foreground from background. By grouping the majority of my image in darkness (the foreground) it therefore makes my lightest area (the background) my first read because it's the thing that sticks out like a sore thum due to what you would refer to as OBJECT ON GROUND
If I had a white page with a black dot on it. The black dot is clearly obvious because it's the most contrasting thing on a very empty space, but you don't look at this as a white page that filled a black space into a tiny black dot. You see the black dot as an OBJECT resting on a white GROUND. Vice Versa you see the white OBJECT sitting on top of a black GROUND. By making the large portion of my composition as a dark image the light background on my space will stick out like a sore thumb because it is percieved as the OBJECT in the page. FYI eyes are usually drawn to lighted parts of a scene. It's how our eyes work and how we gather information about things in an environment.
A FIRST READ is the thing you want the viewers eye to see first and foremost in a composition. That can be commanded by many different way, size, shape, contrast, etc (I could go on all day). In this case it's with lighting. If I were to further break down the elements of my composition a little further it would be this....
The first thing I want you to see is my robot.
2. TEMPERATURE- Temperature is one way to separate form by contrasting warm and cools. In this case all foreground elements are painted with cool colors and all images in the background are warm. This is not to say that blue is a cool color and orange is a warm color. There are cool oranges and warm blues as well, but for the sake of simplicity I have illustrated this diagram as such. You can also say that COLOR plays a part in contrast because ORANGE is also the complement to BLUE. In the example below I have grouped the foreground, midground, and background with three different colors. (the yellow is actually slightly lighter in value and that blue is actually a relatively warm blue so it's a horrible example)
3. CONTRAST- Within those grouped elements of foreground, and background you can establish more depth with contrast by separating elements with use of light and dark. The greatest contrast is between the foreground buildings and the background buildings but within those elements you can see that the robot is slightly lighter than the background buildings therefore pushing that shape even further into the background and stressing more visual detail in the first read. Note that the dogs on the right side of the page are closer in value to the buildings and therefore they become a SECOND READ. In other words, you notice the greatest contrast first and the progressively less contrasty elements second, and third etc. SIZE also plays a factor where in this scene the dogs are the largest objects on the page but they are trumped by the contrast of the lighter space filled in by the robot. Keep in mind light and dark is the purest form that the eye gathers information by creating contrast.
4. FLOW- The text in this page reads "I shouldn't have given it a super claw, or a laser eye, or the power to control dogs minds."
The flow of a book constantly wants to go from left to right towards the page turn. Grouping the elements so that the flow of the images go with the flow of the page turn makes the eyes process information more easily to the brain. Going from left to right you see the claw first, the laser eye second and the dogs last.
Well with all that said, I have to admit that I never think of these things consciously while I work. It's all just something you do and learn through practice. If I were tothnk about this kind of stuff all day while working then painting just wouldn't be that mch fun to me. My philosopy is to work and then clean up the mess as you go along.
OK, that's my two cents. Back to work.